April was a slow reading month for me, but I did manage to slip in two books right at the end of the month: ‘Ghostland’ by Colin Dickey and ‘Arthur and the Kings of Britain’ by Miles Russel. Neither of them was what I had been expecting when I had picked them up but I did enjoy them anyway. In fact, I liked the direction ‘Ghostland’ took so much that I’ve decided to do a quick review of it on my YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_6fNcFG2lZ8
‘Arthur and the Kings of Britain’? Well, like I said: I did enjoy it. I’m just not sure that it was what the title was telling me.
You see, Russel’s text is about Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘The History of the Kings of Britain’. Geoffrey was attempting to write a grand linage for the kings of Britain and thus tries to fit a lot of historical, semi-historical, pseudo-historical, and made-up (?) characters into one long story. There are points where its just lists of names and other times when people just invade Rome a lot, and then, when you hit the Arthurian parts, there is magic and dragons and no one takes this seriously as history, do they???
Most people don’t. But that’s what Russel is trying to address: in reading Geoffrey of Monmouth’s text can you gleam any actual history of the kings of Britain from it? Russel’s answer: yes, if you’re willing to recognize that time mangles a lot of things.
Throughout the whole book Russel takes the time to consider what type of sources Geoffrey could be using and whether we are seeing the ‘mistakes’ in Monmouth’s work repeated in other ‘historical’ texts like Nennius and Bede. There are points where they align for sure: the discussions of the Roman invasion of Britain by Julius Caesar are fascinating because there were likely enough sources, written and oral, that the event ended up being multiplied and both Nennius and Geoffrey end up recording some three different invasions by the Romans rather than the historical two recorded in Caesar’s own written account.
Russel takes the time to differentiate the different styles of writing in the ‘History of the Kings of Britain’ and thus pointing out when Geoffrey is likely using different sources. The narrative is starkly different when all Geoffrey has is a list of names from a family vs. when he more than likely had lost ‘epics’ or ‘praise’ poems to work off of. The difference being which ever Geoffrey recreates: a list of names or a visceral description of certain battles even if he’s willing to skip over far more important ones because his sources probably didn’t describe them.
Russel is also careful to try and pull apart some of the damage that occurred over time and simply resulted in what we have by Geoffrey rather than purposefully done by him: the tendency for duplicated events and the garbling of names over generations and recountings. It’s an absolutely fascinating book, especially if you have had any prior interaction with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘The History of the Kings of Britain’.
However, from the title of the book I was expecting more on Arthur. ‘Arthur and the Kings of Britain’ tells me that, while the author is exploring Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work, it is done so with the intention of exploring King Arthur. The back hypes this up as well:
“Written in 1136 by Geoffrey of Monmouth the ‘Historia Regum Britanniae’ (‘History of the Kings of Britain’) purported to chronicle the British monarchy from the arrival of the Trojan Brutus, grandson of Aeneas, through to the seventh century AD. The ‘Historia’ was a medieval best-seller and copies spread across the whole of western Europe. It was the first work to outline the story of King Arthur. The ‘Historia’ has long been dismissed as an unreliable piece of medieval propaganda. A new examination of the text, however, shows that it is very much more than that. Miles Russel explains how individual elements can be traced back to the first century BC., a time when Britain was making first contact with Rime. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s skill was to weave these early traditions together with material culled from post-Roman sources in order to create a national epic. In doing so, he also created King Arthur, a composite character whose real origins and context are explained here.”
King Arthur is mentioned twice but, no, the text does not even try to explain the “real origins and context” of the character in any depth. Seriously, for the fact that the back hyped up Arthur and that he’s mentioned in the title of the text, the discussion of Arthur begins on page 259…of 300. It ends on 289, giving us 30 pages, most of which simply recounts what Geoffrey says about Arthur. Geoffrey’s own text, as translated by Michael A. Faletra and published by Broadview, is only 217 pages long with Arthur discussed from 163 to 204 (though Arthur’s death occurs on page 199 and the last 5 pages are the immediate aftermath). Geoffrey devotes more time in a shorter book to Arthur who is only part of his lineage and not mentioned in the title.
I wouldn’t have minded the use of Arthur in the title and on the back if the book had delivered what it said it would: a discussion of the origins of Arthur. Instead, Russel devotes much more time to the origin of previous kings, discussing struck coins, additional sources, and places and names that could fit the context of the history. For Arthur, well Russel recounts the history says that Aurelius, a previous king mentioned by Geoffrey and a person many believe to be the ‘real’ Arthur fought the Battle of Badon (which both Nennius and Geoffrey attribute to Arthur) and that Arthur was probably just an amalgamation of folk tales and actual people. You know, what a lot of people figured. And like I said, its not explained, not to the detail that he explains who Brutus may have been (pages 58-90) or how the, comparatively short, discussion of Leir was likely Llyr/Lir/Ler and may have been a Pagan deity Christianized and connected to Rome through the historic Agrippa (and would go on to be the basis for Shakespeare’s King Lear). Nope, the discussion on Arthur isn’t nearly so in depth or interesting: it’s retreading old ground that many Arthurian scholars have already done.
Which, AGAIN, I would not have minded if Arthur hadn’t been set forward as the focus of the text, which he is not. The entire ‘History of the Kings of Britain’ is. The title would have been far more accurate and informative of the focus of the book would have been ‘Geoffrey and the Kings of Britain’ since the work focuses on Geoffrey’s work, sources, literary goals, and so on. Arthur is coincidental because he’s part of Geoffrey’s linage.
Things like this frustrate me because I understand why they do it. ‘Geoffrey and the Kings of Britain’ isn’t going to draw in the readers because you already have to know Geoffrey and Monmouth as the author of the ‘History of the Kings of Britain’ to understand the title and want to read it. But practically everyone knows who King Arthur is: you don’t even need to give him the title, just include it somewhere nearby and everyone knows who the Arthur in ‘Arthur and the Kings of Britain’ is.
More people are liable to read the book because of the name recognition, sure. But how fair is it to tell someone that they’re going to get a discussion of Arthur through the lens of one of the first historical authors to mention him but what they actually get is a discussion of the author himself and ‘Oh, yeah Arthur’s here – he’s just way in the back over there’? It’s not.
We’ve come to trust titles, especially on non-fiction and literary criticism books. When I pick up a book called ‘The War of the Roses’ I can safely assume it’ll be about the War of the Roses and would, understandably, be upset if it actually discussed Shakespeare because he has a couple of History plays that cover parts of the War of the Roses.
Yes, the back of the book does say we’ll be looking at Geoffrey of Monmouth but it keeps mentioning Arthur too, like he’s going to be the focus. There’s a balancing act and ‘Arthur and the Kings of Britain’ didn’t stay upright in my opinion: I wanted a book about Arthur and that isn’t what I got.
Does enjoying a book anyways erase the fact that I feel like I was tricked into reading it? Not really. I’m just not sure how to avoid this problem in the future.